Learning The Story, Living The Story part 5: Context, Context, Context!

Welcome to part 5 of my 6 week series on being transformed by the Bible. Here is a quick recap of where we’ve been so far:

Those were the “unhelpful” posts. But last week we started the “helpful” ones.

You may notice that part 4 was in direct response to part 1. Today is in direct response to part 2.

Context!

One of the things that has been most helpful to me in reading the Bible has been learning how to put things in context. I very much used to be a verse cherry-picker. But I realize now how unhelpful that is. It doesn’t help you learn the story or live it. It helps you find a sentence that can pretty much mean whatever you want it to mean.

But when you learn to put things in context, you will see that each verse is a sentence (more or less).

Each sentence is a part of a paragraph

Each paragraph is a part of a chapter

Each chapter is part of a book

And each book has a place within the whole dang thing.

And often, when you consider these things, the verse that you were using to back up your stance on whatever topic can end up saying something totally different or even the exact opposite of what you thought.

How About An Example?

How many of you knew I was going to talk about Jeremiah 29:11? How many of you have heard this?

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

People use it as a blanket promise that God is always going to do good things for them and take care of them. I even heard someone testify about living through a car crash and this was their verse from now on.

Which sound really nice. But that isn’t what the verse is about. Let’s take a closer look.

For I know. Why does he say “for?” That means something came before this that influences this sentence. What was that sentence?

For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place.

Hang on, this isn’t about surviving car crashes. This is about trusting that God will remain faithful to his people even though they are stuck in Babylon. Apparently people are trying to tell them something else. Specifically, they are telling the people that the time in Babylon won’t be that long.

But God wants them to know it will be a long time. 70 years.

When you keep pulling back and putting in more context, you see that Jeremiah was calling his people to repentance. None of them listened and so they were taken into Babylon as exiles. He writes them a letter that basically admonishes them to continue to live as God’s faithful, holy people in exile.

And one day he will bring them out.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Because we are good contextual students of the Bible.

We have read Genesis 12. We have also read Deuteronomy 4.

God’s people have a calling and a purpose. God’s people also know there are consequences for not obeying those things.

The verse takes on an entirely new meaning when we put it in context. And, I would argue, a more interesting, compelling, and realistic meaning.

So Remember . . .

The next time you want to crack off a verse about something, put it in context. You might be surprised about what it actually says.

But here’s the thing, it takes work. It takes time. You might be confused for a while. That’s ok. We’re just learners, remember?

Here are a list of some of my favorites:

  • Philippians 4:13
  • Psalm 46:10
  • 1 Peter 5:7
  • Ephesians 5:22
  • Hebrews 9:27

What are some of your favorite out of context verses?

part 1: Why we don’t read the Bible
Part 2: The Teacher’s Edition of Life
Part 3: Don’t Read the Bible Alone
Part 4: Train Yourself to Read the Bible
Part 6: The Word With Friends

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6 responses

  1. One of my favorite “out of context” verses is Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” A great verse for sparsely attended prayer meetings. But not really the point.

    Even going back a couple verses to 18-19 makes is sound great: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” Sounds great, eh? We’re empowered AND Jesus is with us where ever we go! Still not the point.

    You have to read verses 15-17 to get the [immediate] context. Once you get those, it changes the orientation of 18-20 dramatically!

    • I’ll see your v.15-17 and raise you the rest of the chapter. Greatest in the kingdom, lost sheep, what to do when someone sins against you, unmerciful servant.

      This is about forgiveness and restoration.

  2. Thank you so much for looking at the context for the Jeremiah 29 verse! Yes! The Lord tells the people that they might as well settle down, build houses, and make a life where they are, because they are going to be spending quite a while in Babylon.

    Looking forward to Part 6.

    • Well, what is even MORE interesting is how dangerous settling down is earlier in Scripture. I think the fact that they are in exile is a big deal. I am excited for part 6 as well.

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